At the time, she was living in an apartment with her mother, who immigrated to the United States from Chile, while her father served a sentence in a county prison.
"My friends' older brothers and sisters would always wear colors and baggy clothes, but I didn't really know what that meant," Paula said.
"But then all of my friends started wearing red, and so I did too. I wore red every single day. I never wore blue, ever. To my friends it was like a sin. And I was talking to this guy, he always wore blue, and it was a big deal. All of my friends went crazy. And I still didn't get it. They wanted to beat the crap out of this guy. They wanted to do really bad things to him. And then I got that it was serious," she said.
Paula's description of gang hostility boiling down to the difference between a red and a blue shirt — red being a Nortenos gang color, and blue standing for the Surenos — is echoed by her friends and fellow seniors, "Angela" and "Theresa," who last week came to a classroom at Los Altos High School to tell a small group of educators about their experiences with gangs. (The names of the three girls have been changed to protect their identities.)
All three girls are weeks away from completing a four-year program called AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination. The program serves underrepresented students in the school by helping to keep their grades up and to get them into college.
After being accepted to four-year colleges in and around the Bay Area, the girls were taking the moment to look back on the path that led them to AVID. All three said getting involved in a gang was a real possibility during their formative middle school and junior high years, due to the influence of siblings, friends and peer pressure.
Sister a Sureno
Theresa's older sister joined the Surenos gang when Theresa was in junior high, and she said she watched her sibling drastically change.
"My sister got really into it. Her friends came over to the house all the time. I got scared she'd do something wrong and they would take it out on me. I've been afraid I'd get jumped for wearing the wrong colors."
Theresa said that the time her sister spent with her so-called new family put a strain on her real family.
"We didn't have much of a relationship then. We barely talked. Just a hello and a good-bye and that was it. She wasn't coming home very much," Theresa said.
"A lot of it comes through the families with sisters and brothers and cousins, and then it stretches out to friends," said Officer Armando Espitia, who for eight years has worked on the Mountain View Police Department's Gang Suppression Team.
Espitia added that many of the young women he has seen who have become involved in gangs did so because of a boyfriend.
"I think they're attracted to that whole "bad boy" thing," he said. "They like these boys in junior high and later they become their boyfriends."
For Angela, any temptation to get into a gang came from school.
"I started hanging around with people I shouldn't have in seventh grade," she said. "But it was only at school. We'd talk at lunch. My mom was very strict with me, and I didn't go out. That part of my life just stayed at school."
For all three, violence, particularly as retribution, was seen, heard and talked about. And if the girls wanted to be official members of a gang, they had to be "jumped in" — assaulted, physically or sexually, by their own members.
None of the girls chose that course.
"I don't like to fight," Paula said. "Most of the time my friends were normal, but sometimes they'd get so upset. They'd be telling me they had beat up some guy."
Espitia said initiating female members into a gang can take on two forms. If the gang is an all-girl faction — which he has not seen in the Mountain View area — the girls will initiate the new girl by physically harming her. But if the girl wants to join a gang of both male and female members, sometimes the initiation can involve what Espitia refers to as being "sexed-in," where the female has sex with a variety of male members over the course of one night.
The practice, Espitia said, is also called "sex train" or "training."
Once gang members, the girls are often asked to participate as accomplices to crimes.
Espitia mentioned a case from early April, when a 22-year-old Hispanic man accepted a ride home from a man and a woman after they were in a car accident. The 18-year-old female driver, a Mountain View resident, drove him past his apartment complex to the 400 block of Tyrella Avenue, where the male companion got out of the car and began stabbing the man. Another male suspect, who was waiting in the parking lot with a group, joined the first suspect in the attack.
Girls and women, Espitia said, "help out with a lot of things. They are the drivers, and they'll hold the weapons for the gang."
He added that gangs have always been largely male-dominated and remain that way in this area. He also said he has not seen any increase in female membership in recent years.
Fernandez murder a turning point
For Theresa, the violence was always a turn-off. A pivotal moment for her in deciding against joining a gang was the murder of Los Altos High School student Alejandro "Alex" Fernandez, who was shot to death on Rengstorff Avenue in September 2004.
Fernandez was a member of the same Sureno faction as Theresa's sister, and was frequently at Theresa's home. She recalled the last time she saw him, when the two happened to walk home together. Fernandez had just been released from jail.
"We started talking and he told me he had just read an awesome book while he was in jail. I was pretty surprised; you don't think of a gang member as being really into a book. So I acted like I didn't believe him. I said, 'What book?' And he said, 'This book called "Shiloh."'
"That was so cool to me, because I had read that book too."
Not long after, Fernandez was killed in what police believe was a gang-related shooting. Theresa said the impact of his death was immediate.
"It was so sad to know he had died that way. My sister completely changed. It made her understand that you're risking your own life when you're in a gang. From there on out we started hanging out more."
Angela heard about Fernandez' death while at home.
"I just remember my mother's face. She felt a lot of pain," Angela said.
Paula also heard about Fernandez, but from her Norteno friends.
"I knew people who were happy about it. They said, 'One less scrapper on the street. He got what he deserves.' I couldn't believe that they have this hate in them for another person. I thought, that person was a son, he had a mother and brothers and sisters."
The girls' AVID teacher, Roma Hammel, said that though the girls associated with different gangs and in different ways, they followed a similar journey.
"I think there was a clear beginning, where they became interested in it and thought it was cool. But gradually, there is an awakening."
"Their story is how they found their way through their community, how they decide what their identity is and how they fit into society," Hammel said.
The girls say they are squarely college-bound, but still do know people in and around the gangs in their neighborhoods.
"I know a bunch of little kids that think they're in gangs," Paula said. "It's more younger kids now. They're coming from middle school where this all happens, and they think they're hard."